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Peppers, sweet

Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation


Why Eat It

Members of the genus Capsicum, all peppers--both sweet peppers and chili peppers--are excellent sources of many essential nutrients, especially vitamin C--by weight, green bell peppers have twice as much as citrus fruit (red peppers have three times as much). Moreover, red peppers are quite a good source of beta-carotene. Found in a panorama of red, green, yellow, and purple hues, sweet peppers are guaranteed to add visual zest to any dish.

Varieties

The most popular sweet pepper in the United States is the bell, which accounts for more than 60% of the domestic pepper crop. While chili peppers are primarily used to season foods, it's possible to consume sweet peppers in sufficient quantities so that they make a significant nutritional contribution to your diet.

Bell: With three to four lobes, these sweet bell-shaped peppers can be green, red, yellow, orange, brown (sometimes called chocolate peppers), or purple, depending on the variety and the stage of ripeness. Most are sold in the mature green stage--fully developed, but not ripe. As they ripen on the vine, most bell peppers turn red and become sweeter. Bell peppers have no "bite" at all, since they contain a recessive gene that eliminates capsaicin. Instead, they have a mild tang and a crunchy texture that makes them suitable for eating raw; their size, shape, and firmness allow them to be stuffed whole. (Mexi-Bell, a cross between bell peppers and hot peppers, look like small bell peppers, but have a hotter bite.)

Banana: These mild yellow peppers, resembling bananas in shape and color, are available fresh or pickled in jars. It's important to taste one before using it in a recipe because of its resemblance to a moderately hot twin called Hungarian wax. Both banana and Hungarian wax peppers may be labeled "yellow wax" in stores, with no indication of their pungency.

Cubanelle: These long, tapered peppers, about 4" in length, are either light green or yellow; occasionally, you will find red ones that have been fully matured. Cubanelles are more flavorful than bells and are perfect for sauteing.

Pimiento: Large and heart-shaped, pimientos (sometimes spelled "pimentos") are generally sold in jars, but every so often you can find them fresh--fully ripe and red--in specialty markets. These sweet peppers are mild yet flavorful; their thick, meaty flesh makes them good candidates for roasting; in fact, the pimientos sold in jars are usually roasted and peeled. Large red bell peppers are sometimes packaged as pimientos. You can tell the difference by the shade of red; true pimientos will have an orangy tomato cast, but bells are bright red.

Availability

Sweet bell peppers are in markets all year in good supply, but they are slightly more plentiful in the summer months. California and Florida produce most of the domestic crop; bells are also imported from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Belgium, and the Netherlands (which exports some intensely colored greenhouse varieties).

Shopping

Fresh peppers come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, but the guidelines for choosing them are practically the same. Peppers should be well shaped, firm, and glossy. Their skins should be taut and unwrinkled, and their stems fresh and green. Bell peppers are best when they are thick walled and juicy, so they should feel heavy for their size. Watch out for soft or sunken areas, slashes or black spots.

If a green bell pepper shows streaks of red, it will be slightly sweeter than a totally green one; however, once picked, it won't get any redder--or sweeter, either.

Storage

Store unwashed sweet peppers in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week; green peppers will keep somewhat longer than red or other ripe peppers. Check them frequently; immediately use any peppers that have developed soft spots.

Preparation

Wash peppers just before you use them. Some bell peppers are waxed, and these should be scrubbed well before eating. If you are going to cut the peppers into strips or pieces, cut the pepper lengthwise into flat panels. Discard the stems, spongy cores, and seeds (which can have a bitter taste). If you are using the pepper whole, cut the stem end off and then discard the core and seeds. Or, for pepper halves, cut the pepper in half lengthwise (not crosswise).

Pepper skin can be unpleasantly tough in cooked dishes; you can easily peel peppers by blanching or roasting them, as explained below. For most recipes, the various colors of bell peppers are interchangeable (keep in mind that reds and yellows are sweeter than green peppers).

Baking: Cut bell peppers into large chunks and place them in a baking dish (alone or with other vegetables). Bake in a 350°F oven until tender. For baking with a stuffing, choose solid, thick-walled peppers so that they will hold their shape. Cut off a "lid" (about 1/2" deep) and a thin slice from the bottom of each pepper so that each one will stand without tipping; or, halve each pepper lengthwise to form two "cups." Stuff the peppers and place them in a baking pan in which they will fit snugly. Bake in a 375°F oven until the filling is heated through and the peppers tender. Cooking time: 20 to 25 minutes.

Blanching: Blanched sweet peppers can be used without further cooking as containers for cold salads. Cut off the caps and core the peppers, then blanch them in boiling water. Cooking time: five minutes.

Microwaving: For whole stuffed peppers, first microwave the cored pepper shells for two minutes to soften them. The precooking ensures that the shells will be done at the same time as the filling. Then fill the peppers and cook until the filling is heated through. Cooking time: seven to eight minutes.

Broiling/Grilling: Sweet bell peppers take on a wonderful smoky flavor when charred over a flame; this procedure also allows you to peel the peppers. You can broil or grill pepper pieces (or you can fire-roast whole peppers over an open flame; see below). To prepare peppers for broiling, slice the pepper lengthwise into four or five flattish panels (this will depend on the shape of the peppers; sometimes they are four-sided, but sometimes their shape is a little less defined). Discard stem, ribs, and seeds. Lay the pieces on the grill skin-side down, or on a broiler pan skin-side up, and cook about 4" from the heat until the skin is blackened. Place the charred peppers in a bowl, cover with a pot lid or a plate, and let them "sweat" for about 15 minutes; this will loosen the skin. Then scrape off the skin with a table knife (doing this under running water is helpful). Cooking time: six to 10 minutes.

Fire-Roasting: To fire-roast whole peppers, cut a small slit near the stem of each one. Impale each pepper on a long-handled cooking fork and hold over the flame. Place the charred peppers in a bowl, cover with a pot lid or a plate, and let steam for about 15 minutes; this will loosen the skin. Then scrape off the skin with a table knife (doing this under running water is helpful). Cut around the stem, pull out the stem and core, and scrape out any remaining seeds. Cooking time: six to 10 minutes.

Sauteing: Strips or squares of pepper (a mix of colors makes an attractive side dish) can be sauteed in oil or broth. They are good alone or in combination with other vegetables. Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes.

Stir-frying: Add 1" squares or strips of pepper to Chinese meat or poultry stir-fries, or cook the peppers with broccoli, water chestnuts, green beans, or other vegetables. Cooking time: four to six minutes.


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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